Is Makhar Vaziev Changing the Bolshoi?

July 26, 2016

Vladimir Urin (left) and Makhar Vaziev (right) in the Bolshoi studios. Photo by Damir Yusupov, courtesy Bolshoi.

Earlier this year, the Bolshoi Ballet saw yet another regime change: Makhar Vaziev, the former La Scala and Mariinsky artistic director, took over Sergei Filin’s job. Not many insiders were surprised when Filin got pushed out, since he and Bolshoi general director Vladimir Urin were not exactly chummy colleagues. But few would have guessed that Urin—who was planning to change the “artistic director” position to a “company manager” mainly charged with administrative duties—would hire the ambitious, strong-willed Vaziev.

Laura Cappelle wrote last month in the Financial Times that, “Upon being reminded of the proposed changes [to the position], Vaziev cracked a sarcastic smile. ‘Look at me. Do you think I would ask for people’s advice on repertoire? I would never have agreed to be a technical manager.’ ” Indeed, his official title today is ballet director.

So what has Vaziev’s first season at the company been like? And what are his ideas on how to help the Bolshoi succeed and move past its spate of scandals? Russia Beyond the Headlines sat down with him prior to the company’s tour to London this week. Here are the most revealing parts of their conversation:

Vaziev doesn’t exactly encourage work-life balance.

He tells interviewer Anna Galayda: “Everybody should work 24 hours a day and that’s it. And feel it not as a punishment but as a joy.” Okay, maybe 24 hours is a bit of a Russian-esque exaggeration. But Vaziev goes on to add, “I can tell you that I work 12 to 13 hours every day… It is only at this pace that one can move forward these days.”

Bolshoi Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo by Damir Yusupov, courtesy Bolshoi.

He’s not afraid to push for what he wants.

The most revealing scenes in the HBO documentary Bolshoi Babylon were when Urin spoke over Filin, dismissively telling him to sit down whenever Filin tried to speak his mind. It doesn’t sound like Vaziev will let that happen: He left the Mariinsky when his authority was challenged, and only accepted the position at La Scala when that theater’s general manager said he could “change everything.” Vaziev says of his time at La Scala, “Many times I broke all the rules and all the laws: there was simply no other way to achieve anything… True, there were people in the theater administration who were outraged at what I was doing. But … I think everybody understood why I was doing it.”

He embraces new technology.

For the first time ever, the Bolshoi recently live-streamed a performance on an outdoor screen in Teatralnaya Square, right outside the theater. While some might see this as a threat to ticket sales, Vaziev cheered the positive impact: “People even brought their own chairs. And I told the dancers: ‘See how people love us, how they support us.’ … I am all for any available formats that give us the opportunity to share our art.”

His focus is on Moscow.

Despite the pressure to impress foreign audiences on tour (the Bolshoi is seen as Russia’s cultural ambassador), Vaziev is more concerned about how his company performs in its hometown. “A far more important task for us is to dance as well as possible in Moscow. If we achieve that in Moscow, it will be appreciated in London, in Paris and in Beijing.”

Smirnova as Kitri

He sees talents hidden within his dancers.

In a company where many performers have historically spent their entire careers typecast in particular roles, Vaziev cast the lyrical Olga Smirnova as Kitri for the London tour. The move drew mixed reviews, but it’s a spiriting sign of the kinds of opportunities he’ll give his dancers to grow.

Speaking of Smirnova, Vaziev says, “When I saw her in rehearsals I realized that there is a lot of playful mischievousness in her. She is a rather sunny girl. She was surprised herself when I suggested that she prepare for Don Quixote. And now, I think, it is a part that she was born to dance.”

Known for plucking out talented dancers early on, Vaziev also cast 22-year-old corps member Margarita Shrainer in the lead role. Interestingly, a recent profile in The Telegraph describes Shrainer as a “workaholic” who caught Vaziev’s eye in rehearsals because of her extreme determination. If Vaziev has his way, she’d better get ready for 24-hour days…